Hospital, universities at center of new redevelopment push in Camden

Posted: June 30, 2013

Holding on to hopes that expansion of eds and meds will lead to Camden's rebirth, the city's redevelopment agency took several prime real estate parcels off the market and agreed to negotiate their sale to Cooper Health System.

The proposed deal is at the center of an ambitious plan to connect the university district, where Rutgers-Camden resides, and the medical science district, where Cooper University Hospital and Rowan University have an established presence.

Full execution of the plan depends on raising millions of dollars in funding, though the cost of acquiring the plots is likely to be nominal.

"It will add to the growth of the downtown area," the chief of staff of Cooper University Hospital, Louis S. Bezich, told a special meeting of the redevelopment board Thursday evening.

The redevelopment agency's decision elicited a skeptical note Friday from Councilman Brian Coleman, who says city officials' redevelopment strategy has been ineffective in lifting the fortunes of city residents.

Voting swiftly, with no questions asked, the redevelopment board signed two option agreements with Cooper University Hospital's parent corporation for parcels in three blocks of the Lanning Square and Cooper Plaza neighborhoods.

One agreement gives Cooper the option to buy 10 city-owned lots at the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Fifth Street, now a gravel parking lot.

The idea is to put up a Rutgers-Rowan building there when the two universities create a joint board in Camden, as called for in the New Jersey Medical and Health Science Education Restructuring Act.

Six more lots, covered by a second option agreement, are divided between adjacent blocks on the corners of Broadway and Washington Street. They are across from the Cooper University Medical School of Rowan University, which opened last year.

The Rutgers-Camden and Cooper campuses are separated by a quarter mile, or three blocks.

Though the option agreements are with Cooper Health, it could be Rowan or Rutgers that eventually buys the property. The final use "remains to be determined," Bezich said.

He said the agreement was a "strategy to give us some options as some other policies unfold," referring to the Rutgers-Rowan collaboration.

Another piece of the plan involves building a Rutgers nursing and science school across from City Hall at Federal and Fifth Streets. This would extend the university's campus south, drawing it closer to the Cooper Hospital complex, according to the Cooper's Ferry Partnership, a nonprofit development group not related to the hospital.

A spokesman for Rutgers said Friday, however, that the site of the nursing school had not been decided yet. The $46.9 million in funding for that project is to come from a bond measure passed last year.

Cooper's Ferry also described plans to expand the Walter Rand Transportation Center on South Broadway.

The higher-education restructuring act, signed by Gov. Christie last year, calls for Rowan to absorb the School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and partner with Rutgers-Camden on a new College of Health Sciences in Camden.

In the last two years, all three institutions - Cooper, Rowan, and Rutgers - have invested millions in projects in Camden.

Rutgers-Camden built a $54 million graduate student housing apartment building on Cooper Street. Rowan opened a $139 million medical school last year. Cooper is to complete the $100 million Cooper Cancer Institute later this year at Haddon Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Cooper Hospital's chairman, George E. Norcross III, is an owner of Interstate General Media, parent of The Inquirer.

"The incredible revitalization . . . will continue with added momentum," redevelopment agency executive director Saundra Ross-Johnson said.

But some in the city have expressed concern that much of the development involves nonprofits such as Cooper and the universities rather than taxpaying businesses.

"How can anybody expect the city to turn around if they keep giving away their land?" asked Coleman, a critic of the city's development strategy.

More than 52 percent of the city's properties are tax exempt, with the city's taxpaying entities providing a mere $24 million toward a $151 million budget.

But Ross-Johnson said she expected private funding to follow the public money the projects are drawing.

"All of that is going to bring in new people, new jobs, and new revenues for the city," she said.

Some of the parcels Cooper Health will be negotiating to buy were acquired by the redevelopment agency in the last three years with federal stimulus money.

The Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which ended in February, allowed the redevelopment agency to land-bank more than 200 properties to be bundled and sold for redevelopment or kept as green space for the city.

Many of the agency's land-banked properties are in the Lanning Square and Cooper Plaza neighborhoods, where Cooper, Rowan, and Rutgers are expanding.

The neighborhood-stabilization money also went toward the rehabilitation and building of 58 homes in the Cooper Plaza neighborhood.

Though city officials initially claimed development in those neighborhoods would be in high demand by hospital employees, fewer than half of the homes have been sold, and very few went to hospital employees.


Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," at www.philly.com/camden_flow.

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